In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 we have an example of apostolic biblical theology. Systematic theology is when we take everything the Bible says about a given subject and synthesize and summarize that information under a doctrinal heading. That is a good, godly, necessary, and inevitable work if we believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. Biblical theology is a little different. It is the study of the progressive revelation of God and his will through the redemptive history and story of Scripture. Rather than synthesizing and summarizing facts which Christians are to believe, biblical theology examines doctrine as it is revealed through the Bible story. After all, God did not give us a systematic theology book, as helpful and proper as those volumes can be. He gave us a book which tells a story, a true story, an historical story, but a story, not a textbook. God makes himself known to us through that story. Neither biblical nor systematic theology are better or worse than the other. Either can be done faithfully and well or not. In fact, you can’t do systematic theology well without also practicing biblical theology, and visa versa. The two approaches are mutually reinforcing and necessary.
In our passage today Paul looks back at the OT story of the exodus and wandering in the wilderness and draws from it lessons the church in Corinth (and the rest of us) needed to learn. He saw an authoritative model in the Hebrew Bible, a story that was historical but was more than just historical; it was pedagogical, exemplary, and alarming. It was a story relevant to the experience of Christians living under the New Covenant, and though this passage is in everyone’s Bible, it uses the OT and views covenant theology in a way that many (Reformed) Christians do not.
Have you ever heard a parent say he was unwilling to discipline or correct a child because he had done the same things at his age? (I hope you’ve never done this yourself.) “I can’t tell my son not to smoke pot because I smoked some when I was his age. I can’t make firm rules about his dating habits because I sowed wild oats back in the day. I can’t tell him not to play Russian roulette with my pistol because who among us hasn’t done so!” One might hope the wicked absurdity of such an approach is self-evident. Parenting requires a certain use of the past, a particular view of history. It involves telling your children stories so that they learn what to do and what not to do. The lesson is not: “Dad smoked pot and slept around, and he turned out okay.” It is: “Don’t be an idiot like Dad was. Don’t presume upon and transgress against God’s grace.”
Paul is a good parent, and the saints in Corinth were his children. He wanted his kids to know their family history: good, bad, and ugly. He expected them to learn from their forebears what was appropriate, and what was not, for the people of God. If you think making moral lessons from examples in the OT is a type of legalistic moralizing, you might want to skip this sermon and section of verses. But since you already showed up for church today, I will try to be gentle as we examine how Paul takes a sledgehammer to the way some people think of interpreting the Bible.
Whose Fathers in the Wilderness?
It is unknown how many of the members of the church in Corinth had been rank pagans immediately prior to their conversion. A good case can be made that many (perhaps the majority?) were God-fearers, i.e. Gentile worshipers of Yahweh, prior to embracing Jesus as the Messiah. But whether that is so or not, no one (that I know of) disputes that the congregation in Corinth was mostly made up of non-Jews. Some of them had worshiped idols in the local temples before they came to faith in Christ, and even if some of them had worshiped Yahweh in the local synagogues, they came from families where their parents and grandparents had worshiped false gods.
If most of the Corinthian Christians were non-Jews, how can Paul say what he does in v.1: Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers [were in the wilderness]? Paul calls them brethren. No problem, you say, they are brethren in Christ. Fair enough. But then Paul says, all our fathers. All our fathers? Since when did the Israelites in the OT become fathers to the converted Greeks and former pagans in Corinth? Paul is not merely saying that he and they were brothers in the Lord; he is saying they are brothers from the same family.
One commentator has observed that “we have a tendency to draw contrasts between the Old and New Testaments in the very places where the New Testament draws parallels” (Douglas Wilson, Partakers of Grace, 137-138). We think that we are being biblical when we draw radical distinctions between the people of God in the OT and NT. Dispensationalists—which means the majority of evangelicals—openly affirm that Israel and the Church are two different groups, two different people groups whom God saves and for whom he has different plans and distinct promises. Obviously there is a distinction between ethnic Israel considered in its hereditary and political sense and spiritual Israel, which Paul calls the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). But this is where our passage begins to challenge our thinking, whether you are a dispensationalist or simply a modern covenant theologian. Paul affirms continuity between Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT, and that continuity includes many reprobates who died under God’s judgment in the wilderness and were damned.
Let me head off a question I am bound to be asked after this sermon. No, not every one of the Israelites who died in the wilderness were lost. As many as believed in God were saved. There may have been many, maybe even the majority, who recognized their sin of unbelief and repented but who nevertheless died under the judgment God decreed. Dying in the wilderness did not mean they all went to Hell. Remember that Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land too, and yet he was saved. But lest some infer from this that all of them were saved or that those Paul has in mind here might have been, let’s pay close attention to the language. The apostle is referring to those with whom God was not well pleased, who lusted after evil things, who tempted Christ, and who were destroyed by the destroyer. These are not descriptions of saved persons who fell into sin and were chastised for it. They didn’t just lose a jewel in their crown. This is a description of those who were false professors, hypocrites, reprobates, destined for hell, and even though not everyone in that wilderness generation belonged to that category, everyone from that generation who was in that category was first a member of the visible Church and once partook, in some way, of Christ.
The Spiritual Advantages They Shared (with Us)
This is the very point over which many modern Presbyterians will stumble, so we need to write some of this in our minds with a boldface font and make liberal use of underlining. The Jews Paul is describing here were reprobates who died under God’s judgment and were members of the Church in the OT who actually partook of Christ. What does Paul say? All our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. Ahem. It appears someone needs to sit down and have a gentle but firm chat with Paul about his covenant theology. He doesn’t appear to realize that only those who are saved partake of Christ and all of those who do so can never be lost.
I should say immediately that neither this passage nor any of those dozens of others in your Bible that make the same point indicate that Paul is an Arminian. Paul was a very good Calvinist, or we might better say, Calvin was a good Paulinist. (Not that either of them would appreciate my saying so. They both would insist they were simply following Christ and tell me to stop talking like a sectarian.) What I mean to say is that nothing taught in this passage contradicts the theology we confess and love in the Westminster Confession. It does, however, contradict what some claim the Westminster Confession says.
Specifically, the Bible says those who belong to the visible Church, those who have been baptized and welcomed to the Table, truly partake of Christ without ever truly possessing the grace of Christ. They have a real connection, a covenantal one, but it is to their condemnation rather than salvation. They belong to the consecrated community, but because they do not believe, they are set apart for judgment rather than for joy. If we wanted to illustrate this, we might describe them as branches connected to the Vine of Christ but which do not bear fruit and are, therefore, cut off and burned. Or we might say they are like bad fish caught in a net, drawn out of the sea of humanity, but then removed and cast aside in the final sorting. We could describe them as branches cut off from an olive tree, actually connected at one time, but ultimately dead and destined to be pruned. We could use any of these analogies, and many others, because they are analogies Scripture uses.
Their passage through the Red Sea is interpreted by Paul as a baptism. The manna they ate is described as spiritual food, i.e. food of the Spirit. The Rock from which they drank is identified as Christ. This is Paul saying these things. He is relating their experience to ours. They were part of the Church. They were connected to Jesus. They enjoyed a covenantal access to him.
The Mosaic economy was an administration of the Covenant of Grace, not the Covenant of Works. So says our Westminster Confession of Faith (7.5), and for good reason. It’s what the Bible teaches. It was gracious in its origin, in its operation, and in its outcome. Those who believed in God under the Law were saved by Christ whose blood flows forward and backward in time (Heb. 9:15). The Law was not given to Israel as a covenant of works so as to justify or condemn them. It had the same purpose for them as it does for us: to serve as a rule of life, a guide to faith, and a path of gratitude.
Christ was the Savior of the Israelites in the OT. He was the Rock from which they drank. Their covenant with God was a covenant of grace. They were baptized just as we are; they ate the bread of heaven just as we do. The forms and symbols may have been different, but the underlying reality was the same. As Calvin explains it in his commentary:
“For that people was a figure of the Christian Church, in such a manner as to be at the same time a true Church. Their condition represented ours in such a manner that there was at the same time, even then, a proper condition of a Church. The promises given to them shadowed forth the gospel in such a way, that they had it included in them. Their sacraments served to prefigure ours in such a way, that they were nevertheless, even for that period, true sacraments, having a present efficacy. In fine, those who at that time made a right use, both of doctrine, and of signs, were endowed with the same spirit of faith as we are.” –s.v. 10:11
Yet… They Fell
But… they fell. A generation was sentenced to death in the wilderness. Why? The writer of Hebrews tells us: We see that they could not enter in because of unbelief (Heb. 3:19). They did not believe in God, and so their covenant proximity and privileges were all for nothing. Their baptism and sacramental bread was a true ministry of Christ, but it could not save them apart from faith. The terms of their covenant were the same as ours: faith in God, trusting the Savior with a living faith, faith that bears the fruit of obedience. None of them were saved by works. No one could be, then or now. God didn’t require that of them. What he required was belief. He required it of them, and he requires it of us. We know that faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9; Php. 1:29), but it is still a command of God. This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent (John 6:29). They did not fall because their works were inadequate. They were rejected because they did not believe. They disobeyed the Lord because they did not love and trust him.
I want to be very clear. None of those chosen by God for salvation from the foundation of the world were lost. No one who was justified by faith later lost their faith and, consequently, their justified status. We do not only believe the Lord irresistibly draws his elect to Christ; we believe he irresistibly and inevitably preserves them through faith for life everlasting. When we say that those who fell under (eternal) condemnation in the wilderness were once partakers of Christ, we do not mean they ever partook of the saving benefits of Christ. They were covenantally connected, but not savingly so. They were part of the (OT) Church and, therefore, were sanctified by circumcision and baptism, but they never received the true atoning benefits of Christ’s blood. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us (1Jn. 2:19).
But the fact that they were not truly “of us” in one sense, does not mean they were never truly “with us” in another sense. The NT, not the OT, the NT Scriptures written to the Church after the death and resurrection of Christ warn Christians of the danger of falling from grace.
Gal. 5:4: You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Peter says false teachers in the Church deny the Lord who bought them.
2Pet. 2:1: But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.
In what sense were they bought? Not savingly, obviously. But it was not pretend either. They did not merely appear to be bought. They were bought, but then denied the relation by their error. Peter goes on to describe Christians who are misled by such men.
2Pet. 2:20-22: For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
How does the writer of Hebrews describe those who fall away?
Heb. 6:4-6: For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (cf. Heb. 10:26-31)
Evangelical commentaries notwithstanding, this is not a “hypothetical category.” These are real people who were enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, partook of the Holy Spirit, but were lost! They were never saved, but they were connected to Christ, not savingly, not everlastingly, but truly. They trampled the Son of God underfoot and counted the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified a common thing (Heb. 10:29). They were like many of these Israelites. The closing verses of Jude make no sense if covenantal apostasy is not possible in the New Covenant.
Jude 20-25: But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.
It is God who keeps us from stumbling. It is Christ who saves his people to the uttermost. But that salvation is not an insurance policy purchased and then put into a drawer. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved, but only by Christ and only if we continue to trust in him.
Saint Paul the Moralizer
So what does St. Paul have to say about all of this history in the OT? It turns out what he says isn’t nearly as gospel-centered or Christocentric as some experts think it ought to be. What he says could be summarized by saying: “Do you see what happened to those Israelites with all of their Presbyterian privilege and advance copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith? They took it all for granted and fell into unbelief and disobedience and died. Don’t do that!”
I have been reliably informed that using OT characters and stories to draw moral lessons for NT believers is bad, a species of moralizing legalism. But we must pardon Paul for doing such things. He went to a Jewish seminary, not a Reformed one, so we can’t really expect him to know how to handle the biblical text in the proper way. Love covers a multitude of sins.
While “heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea,” in this case, about preaching, I do want to register my objection to reductionistic moralism. The OT isn’t about the diligence of Noah, the faithfulness of Abraham, the holiness of Joseph, the perseverance of Moses, the courage of David, or the loyalty of Daniel.The OT is, from start to finish, inside and out, every line in every book, about Christ. The Hebrew Bible must not be treated like Aesop’s Fables, and anyone who thinks the OT is simply to teach him how to be a better Boy Scout will eventually find himself equipped to build campfires in Hell. But if you think you can read the OT and not observe, be convicted by, learn from, and aspire to imitate the faith and faithfulness of these men and women, then you’re not reading the Bible the way Jesus and the apostles did.
The Hebrew Scriptures are a revelation of God, not a manual for a better life. They prepare our hearts for the gospel, not provide a self-help program for saving ourselves by the law. Every hero in the Bible is a flawed character, all but one, the Lord Jesus. The Lord gave his life to atone for the sin of ungodly men like Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and Daniel, and also for Reformed seminary professors who seem to have little to say about the third use of the Law. But the OT not only prepares us for the gospel, it reveals to us its fruit. It shows us examples of faith that we might be faithful. It recounts stories of obedience that we might be diligent. It also shows us examples of apostasy and the pain of unbelief. All these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. God gave this to us as an example for our good. It would not only be a shame not to learn from it. It would be sin.
Paul gives us the application he intends for these verses: Do not trust in covenant proximity and privileges, but receive God’s covenant grace by faith, and be faithful. As Charles Hodge says in his commentary on the passage:
“It is not enough, therefore, to be recipients of extraordinary favors; it is not enough to begin well. It is only by constant self-denial and vigilance, that the promised reward can be obtained. This is the lesson the apostle intends to inculcate.” –Hodge, 1 Corinthians, 171
To be an Israelite is not enough. It is not enough to participate in the exodus, pass through baptism in the Red Sea, eat spiritual food from heaven every morning, and drink flowing water from the Rock of Christ. All of these things are wonderful. Praise God for every one of his precious gifts! But these things cannot save you. It is not enough to be in the Church, part of the covenant, and to receive and enjoy the blessings of proximity and privilege which your membership provides. You must trust in Christ, and in him alone.
If you asked these Israelites if they believed in Yahweh, every one of them would have said yes. But the Bible says they fell from grace through unbelief. Their unbelief was seen in lusting after evil things, idolatry, sexual immorality, tempting Christ, and complaining. They claimed they believed, but God said they didn’t. They only had a dead faith, which is not true faith at all. We are not saved by works, but faith without works is dead. The faith that receives God’s grace unto everlasting life is a living faith, a faithful faith, an obedient one.
Living faith is imperfect, just like everything in our lives. I need Christ’s righteousness to atone for my imperfect faith, my imperfect repentance, and my imperfect religion, just as much as for my lust, idolatry, immorality, and complaints. But there is a definitive difference between living faith, true faith, and that which is not faith but often claims to be. Jesus said: Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
So what is the will of the Father in heaven? It is to believe in the One whom he sent. It is to look away from ourselves and our sin and to look to Christ. The Israelites fell because they took for granted what God had done for them and continued to look at themselves and to themselves for the satisfaction of their lusts. They lived for their own pleasure, in pride and selfishness, not in faith and humility and gratitude. They were without reverence, even though the pillar of cloud and fire was visible from any place within the camp all the time. After a while you simply get used to it. It’s not enough that we eat heavenly bread every morning. After all, it’s always the same flavor. So we look for something more.
The Hebrews writer, again—it’s almost as if the same author wrote this passage and that book, isn’t it?---the Hebrews writer admonishes us: Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God (Heb. 3:12). Maybe we can’t imagine such a thing happening to us. But what does Paul say in v.12 of our passage? Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
The point in all of this is not to undermine assurance, but to find it in the right place! “I was born in the Reformed Church. I memorized the Heidelberg Catechism in my youth, in German, and then I memorized the Westminster Larger Catechism as well… after I translated it into Latin. I was baptized by a former Moderator of the General Assembly. My profession of faith is regarded as the one the top 10 professions made in the 20th century. I always attend church both Sunday morning and evening, and no one reads their Bible as often as I think about doing so. If you think that is something, just ask me about my humility!” In terms of religious experiences, none of us can compare with any one of those Israelites who saw the ten plagues, were led out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand, and passed through the waters of the sea on dry land. Every one of them had a story to tell, but very few of them believed God when it came time to enter Canaan, and many of them proved to be unbelievers and reprobates and are now in Hell. If we stand, it is only by grace.
You must not trust in your religiousness, in your heritage, in your good works, in whatever you think commends you among the brethren. All I have is Christ. Lord, keep me. The waters of baptism through which you passed were a covenantal cleansing and consecration to Jesus. Live like you belong to him, because you do. The bread you receive at the Lord’s Table is spiritual food. Eat it with gratitude, as if it were bread from heaven to sustain your soul, because it is. The water you drink, the living water that flows in your heart, the Holy Spirit, flows out of the Rock who is Christ. Trust him that he will sustain you in this wilderness. Rely on him, and not on yourself. Cultivate reverence for him and beware of indifference. Be obedient to him, not out of guilt or fear but out of faith and love and gratitude for his grace. Let us not tempt Christ as they also tempted and were destroyed by serpents. Rather let us trust Christ, the One who destroys the serpent’s seed and who will crush Satan under our feet. Amen. --JME